When the River Took John Squires
For years, three old friends from California had been making an annual pilgrimage to fish Alaska's wild and pristine waterways. But in 2018, only two came home.
Devyn Powell’s De Havilland Beaver bumped across the whitecapped surface of Hammersly Lake, in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, for 200 yards before the aircraft settled to an uneasy stop. The veteran bush pilot cut the engine, and the propeller went silent, leaving only the roar of American Creek, a short distance away across the tundra. It was June 19, 2018, and the river was louder than John Squires, Argust Smith, and Randy Viglienzone had expected at this distance, but the excitement of being back in Alaska drowned out any alarm bells in their heads.
The men unloaded their gear, then watched as Powell’s floatplane took off, leaving them more than 50 miles from the nearest road. They set to work organizing their gear and inflating their NRS raft, which belonged to Squires, a mostly-retired court reporter from Lodi, California. Though all three men had experience on big Alaskan rivers, Squires had the most—which made him the de facto leader of this six-day float. He was 71 years old. Smith was 76, and Viglienzone was 68. The men, all from California, had been friends for many years.
Each man wore Gore-Tex waders and a puffy jacket—Smith’s a bright blue, which Squires gave him hell for, grousing that gaudy colors interfered with the beauty of the wilderness. Smith also wore a knit hat with puff balls dangling from the earflaps, earning him more hell. Smith and Viglienzone each carried a .44-caliber Ruger Alaskan pistol holstered at the chest, a precaution against bears.
There was much to do, and everything takes longer on the tundra. They’d caught a window between storm fronts, but more bad weather was blowing in. The same winds that stirred the surface of the lake now lashed them as they pulled together their gear. It took all three men to lug the raft several hundred yards to the river. Finally, with fly rods assembled and camping gear tied down tight, they shoved off. A swift current grabbed hold of the raft, and Squires confidently leaned into the oars.
Locals refer to the river simply as the American. Famous for the abundance and size of its rainbow and Dolly Varden trout, the river winds through the tundra for 40 miles, dropping more than 1,000 feet from its headwaters at Hammersly Lake to the braided inlets of Lake Coville. American Creek is larger than its name suggests, and its character changes dramatically with the seasons and the weather. In August, it can be too low to float. But now, in June, it was still very much spring in Katmai. Local guides know that running the American that early brings all kinds of hazards. Snowmelt from the Aleutian Range and storms blowing in from the Bering Sea can quickly swell the river to dangerous levels. Channels that had been open the season before can be clogged with logs and other debris.
Squires’ group was only the second to float the American that season. They were three days behind a professional guide with two clients, camped somewhere on the river below.
It was midmorning when they finally pushed off. The plan was to average around six river miles per day. The first day would be the shortest; they intended to float just a few miles, stopping along the way to fish, before making their first camp. But what Squires’s group encountered that morning was not the river they’d expected.
John Squires had first set boots in the Alaska wilderness 15 years earlier, on a backpacking trip in Lake Clark National Park. Since then the Last Frontier had never been far from his mind. He stored his rafting equipment in a lockbox at the floatplane launch in the sparsely populated Alaskan village of Iliamna and returned each summer to fish. In recent years, Viglienzone and Smith were regulars in his raft.
Together they’d floated hundreds of miles of whitewater, doing things in their retirement years that the average 30-year-old would think twice about. They’d lowered their gear down a 30-foot waterfall on the Copper and fired warning shots over a charging bear on the Koktuli.
“Not everybody is wired for it,” said Joe Hauner, Squires’s 38-year-old stepson and, most years, his right-hand man on the Alaska trips. Without a guide, the trips were often brutally exhausting. But, as Hauner explained, that was part of the fun. “You want it to suck 90 percent of the time, because that other 10 percent is what no one else gets. If everybody liked it, then it wouldn’t be great.”
For these men, doing everything themselves was important. The months of planning were as much a part of the adventure as the trip itself. To go through a lodge or hire a guide would have been to miss the point.
“The closeness and friendship is what it’s all about,” said Viglienzone. “For six months before the Alaska trips, we would get together to plan and to tie flies. It was a whole romance.”
Do-it-yourself trips are not uncommon on Alaska’s remote rivers, but a group with an average age above 70 is nearly unheard-of. “Not many people can handle it,” said Chad Hewitt, owner of Rainbow River Aviation—the air taxi service in Iliamna—and the Rainbow River Lodge. “And the ones who do, it’s definitely a younger crowd.”
Still, slowing down was never a consideration for Viglienzone, Smith, and Squires. They would begin planning their next Alaska trip almost as soon as the last one ended.
Based on research online and conversations with locals, they had expected to encounter moderate flows this far up, at the headwaters of the American. They were told they’d likely even need to drag their raft through some shallow sections. But it had been storming in Katmai for nearly a week; the river was unusually high, even for June, and still rising. As soon as they launched, they knew something wasn’t right.
We do not belong on this river, Smith thought. But he kept it to himself.
There were none of the exposed gravel bars they’d expected to find. None of the softer current seams or slower eddies. Mile after mile, for 50 feet from bank to bank, the current was relentless. They’d been warned about a few massive midriver boulders, which normally stood several feet above the surface. The ones they saw were almost completely submerged.
It was nearly impossible to stop and rest. Twice they pulled off the river and searched for a spot to camp and wait for the river to come down to a manageable level. But the banks had been overrun, and both areas were swamped with water. They had no choice but to continue.
Squires was on the oars for five hours, in a constant battle with water and rock, his arms growing increasingly fatigued. Holding the heavy oars up out of the water was strenuous, but whenever a blade dipped below the surface it caught the top of a boulder, jamming the handle into his face or ribs.
With the water at this level, arguably more dangerous than the boulders was the wood. Jagged logjams and overhanging tangles of branches known as sweepers awaited them around every bend. Sometime after 4 p.m., the raft washed into a sharp left-hand turn. The river narrowed and the water accelerated, funneling them toward a twisted mass of downed wood.
“Sweeper!” they yelled in unison. Squires quickly angled the raft away from the hazard, back-rowing as hard as he could, but there was no avoiding it. He was a skilled oarsman, but he was exhausted, and the current was too strong.
That’s it, Smith thought. We’re going under.
On backcountry trips, John Squires would let his beard grow in to match his mustache. Both were now white, as was his closely trimmed hair. He had a tattoo on his left forearm: a river, mountains, and a raven in flight. The wilderness was literally a part of him.
Squires grew up exploring the mountains near his hometown of Lodi, in California’s Central Valley, when the Sierra Nevada was still truly wild. Together with his wife, Vicki, he brought up three children and two stepchildren the same way he was raised—backpacking and fishing. Squires was always in search of the most remote destinations. When California’s Desolation Wilderness no longer lived up to its name, he moved farther afield: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and, eventually, Alaska.
His goal was solitude, but Squires enjoyed sharing the experience. He met Smith, then a high school teacher in Lodi, in the early 1980s, through mutual friends. Eventually, Smith introduced him to Viglienzone, a successful commercial insurance broker from Morada, California.
All three men were cut from the same cloth. Viglienzone was more likely to sleep in the back of his 4Runner next to a trout stream than be pampered by a lodge. Though his hair and broad mustache had both gone white too, he had a youthful energy. A real “drop-of-the-hat kind of guy,” Smith said. Viglienzone raced sprint cars and street rods, freedived for abalone, and made his own wine and grappa.
After Smith retired from teaching in 2003, he took up farming full-time on a 13-acre parcel near town. He stayed lean and athletic well into his seventies by doing most of the labor himself and by going to the gym three days a week. “Doing the wilderness stuff, you’ve got to be in halfway decent shape,” he said.
He’d spent much of his retirement in the Sierra, fly-fishing remote mountain lakes and horse-packing dozens of miles into the backcountry. Smith’s golden years were never going to be sedentary.
The three men became fast friends, thanks to a shared appreciation for wild places and the hard work it took to reach them.
“I don't hire anybody to do this stuff,” Viglienzone would say. “Life’s too short.”
Smith was the first to go overboard. He was seated in the bow, and the momentum of the raft pushed him into the alders, where a large branch swept him out of his seat and into the rushing water. Squires went next. His left oar became wedged in the tangle of wood. The oar swung violently in its oarlock, knocking him into the river and crumpling the raft’s aluminum frame.
Smith’s waders started to fill with water, and the pistol strapped to his chest felt like a weight pulling him under. Bouncing along the river bottom eight feet under, he took a sharp blow from a rock above his right eye. He grasped for any handhold within reach, finally wrapping his arms around a boulder and pulling himself to shore.
Alone in the raft, Viglienzone lunged for the oars, trying to regain control. He shouted back and forth with Squires, who was fighting the current and trying to swim to shore, but neither could hear the other over the water’s roar. Viglienzone didn’t see the boulder until it was too late. The raft hit broadside and flipped, tossing him into the rapids. Before it rocketed away, he managed to grab hold of the overturned boat. At the mercy of the current, he ricocheted from boulder to boulder for nearly a mile before the raft finally drifted into a side channel. There, a tree limb jutted above the water. He released his grip on the raft and lunged for the branch. Hand over hand, he pulled himself to shore.
Smith and Viglienzone were both out of the American, but on opposite sides of the river, separated by nearly a mile. They were exhausted, beat up, and in the early stages of hypothermia, in an area with one of the highest concentrations of brown bears in Alaska. It was raining steadily, and neither had any way to start a fire.
You’re screwed, Viglienzone thought.
It had been six hours since they’d launched their raft. Neither had seen each other—or Squires—since the boat flipped. They were less than ten miles from where they’d launched and 30 miles from the takeout. Still, both men intuitively made the decision to head downstream. After all, their raft, gear, food, and—they hoped—friends were all somewhere below.
Smith walked for hours, stopping once to fire a round from his .44 into the air. All he heard in response was the constant droning rush of the American. After a while he spotted the overturned raft tangled in a logjam. There was no sign of his friends.
Viglienzone didn’t hear the shot. Downstream, on the opposite side of the river, he kept walking. You’ve got to move, he thought. He followed a bear trail along the shoreline, shouting “Hey, bear!” every third step, glancing often over his shoulder.
Amazingly—after setting off from different starting points and walking for several hours—the two men suddenly spotted each other across the river.
“Where’s John?” Smith mouthed over the roar of the river.
The American was still too high to cross, so the men walked downstream on opposite banks, trying to stay within sight of each other. Soon, Smith’s path veered into the woods, and they lost sight. Night fell after midnight. The temperature dipped into the forties, but to Smith, who was still soaking wet, it felt colder. Exhausted, he curled up beneath a pine tree just off the bear trail and pulled his puff-balled hat down over his face.
If a bear gets me, a bear gets me, he thought.
He couldn’t sleep, and after waiting out the darkness under the tree, he hit the trail again just before 6 a.m. Shortly after setting out, he caught a glimpse of something bright red through the trees. When he investigated, he found a drybag propped against a tree. And beyond it, a campsite.
On June 20, Mike Goeser was three days into an eight-day float with his clients John Drawbert, an orthopedic surgeon from Wisconsin, and Drawbert’s son Hans. The river had been high when they put in, and it had only got worse. There’s no gauge on the American, so it’s impossible to know for sure, but by Goeser’s reckoning the river was now at twice its average June flow.
Soft-spoken, with a faint Wisconsin accent, Goeser was a former college football player from the University of Minnesota Duluth. At 36, he was still built like a defensive end.
Not much could surprise the veteran guide. But that morning he and the Drawberts emerged from their tents to find an elderly man, soaking wet and badly bruised, collapsed in a camp chair.
It was Smith. Barely able to speak, he pointed toward the far bank. There, shivering in a cloud of mosquitoes, sat Viglienzone.
“Load everything up—now!” Goeser barked. “We’ll go down about 300 yards. There’s a little rocky outcropping there.”
Goeser gave Smith some dry layers and then used his satellite phone to call the National Park Service and his boss, Chad Hewitt, at Rainbow River Lodge in Iliamna. The men quickly broke camp. Although Viglienzone was directly across the river, reaching him wasn’t going to be easy. They were separated by a wave train of whitewater six feet high. Goeser put everything he had into the oars.
“Get downstream!” he shouted to Viglienzone.
For every yard they gained across the river, they were pushed three yards downstream. Finally, the raft bumped up against the rocks on the far bank. With the help of Hans, Goeser was able to pull Viglienzone in.
Now everyone was in danger. The weather was worsening, and there were five large men in a fully loaded raft designed for three.
Communication with Hewitt was spotty; Goesser had a better connection with Bill Betts, the owner of the Iliamna River Lodge, who relayed messages to Hewitt. Still, Hewitt had heard enough to know that a friend was in trouble. Squires had been using Rainbow River Aviation for years, and he and Hewitt had become close.
Hewitt wasted no time. He had his most experienced guide, Jon Streeter, quickly gear up for a search and rescue run of American Creek. Streeter stood six-foot-one, but his powerful frame—the result of 20 years rowing Alaskan rivers—made him look taller. His facial hair changed with his moods, but he always wore a blue Michigan Wolverines baseball hat. Streeter asked Zach Nemelka, a young camp hand, to join him. They met Hewitt at the float plane and flew a low, searching pass over the American before landing at Hammersly Lake. Streeter and Nemelka were on the river by 10:30 that morning.
Hewitt continued to search from the air, relaying coordinates for areas of interest to Streeter on the raft below. Two helicopters were also now en route—a Park Service search and rescue chopper, and a Coast Guard Apache equipped with infrared thermal scanning.
The park rangers instructed Goeser to find a spot where they could land their helicopter, but his group was just above a long canyon whose cliff walls rose several hundred feet above the river.
“There’s no way you’ll be able to bring a helicopter in there,” Goeser told them.
They’d need to find a spot above the canyon. The only option was a narrow boulder bar, overgrown with alders. Goeser put the entire group to work clearing brush, including Smith and Viglienzone, hoping it might warm them up. Once the site was cleared, they built a fire and waited.
When the helicopter arrived, the pilot studied the makeshift landing zone for several minutes, clearly concerned about the safety of putting the bird down on such sketchy terrain. Finally he landed.
The Park Service ranger assessed the situation and determined that Smith and Viglienzone were stable enough to float the 30 miles to the takeout with the in-bound Streeter and Nemelka. There they’d catch a ride from Hewitt. The Park Service helicopter would stay and search for Squires.
A nervous silence fell over the group. Smith and Viglienzone didn’t want to get back on the American, not after what they’d been through. Finally, Viglienzone spoke up.
“I’m alive,” he said to the ranger. “Go get John.” Smith nodded.
Streeter arrived at the boulder bar at 1:30 p.m. He’d floated past the point where Squires was last spotted but saw nothing but alders and river rocks. Smith and Viglienzone loaded into Streeter’s raft. Eight hours later, when Hewitt’s floatplane touched down on the flooded braids of the lower river to pick them up, Streeter’s group was waiting. Streeter had rowed the entire length of American Creek—normally a six-day float—in a single day, an unheard-of feat of oarsmanship and endurance. The guides were exhausted. Smith and Viglienzone were hypothermic. It was late, and a weather system was closing in.
“Get in now, we’re getting out of here!” Hewitt shouted. Minutes later they were airborne, headed to Iliamna.
For the next five days, Hewitt had his planes in the air constantly, funding the search effort out of his own pocket. Vicki Squires and her sons—Joe Hauner and Joe’s brother, Dan—flew to Iliamna on Monday, June 25. Goeser, who had finished out his trip guiding the Drawberts down some of the hairiest water he’d ever encountered on the American, picked them up from the airstrip and drove them to the lodge.
“We're going back,” Goeser told the family. “We’re going to do everything we can to bring him home.” What he didn’t say was that at this point, they were likely searching for a body.
On Tuesday morning, Hewitt flew the family members and Goeser and Nemelka up to Hammersly Lake. It had been one week since the accident. The two guides launched their raft for another search. The family wandered the tundra near the American’s headwaters. Hope had faded.
“We wanted to see the river,” said Hauner. “We hung out for an hour. We took a rock. Things you do.”
In the weeks following the accident Hewitt and his guides recovered almost all the group’s gear, including their raft. They found no sign of John Squires. Smith and Viglienzone flew home to their families in California. Their bruises healed, but the pain remained. Still, the disaster on American Creek won’t keep them out of the wilderness. John wouldn’t want that.
“A lot of people will never do things like this,” Smith said. “They’ll never know what it’s all about. I want to keep doing it as long as I can.”
“I want to finish it,” said Viglienzone, who plans to return to the American next summer, guided by the men who saved his life. “But I feel like I don’t deserve to enjoy it, because John didn’t get to.”
His friends and family will tell you that John Squires’s legacy is larger than the length and width of one river.
“His heart was in Alaska,” said Hewitt. “He was the real deal.”